Most people have moles. Some people have a few and some have more than a hundred. Some moles are famous such as Cindy Crawford's facial mole which has graced the covers of many fashion magazines. Moles can be present anywhere where you have skin. What are moles exactly? The National Institutes of Health tell us that moles are overgrowths of the skin's pigment cells (melanocytes). The color of a mole varies from pink, tan or brown. Moles can be flat or raised and are usually no bigger than a pencil eraser.
Most people don't think about their moles until they notice a change. Something just doesn't look right. Maybe the mole looks darker or larger and in the back of your mind the seed has been planted of worry. You may have heard a story about someone who had skin cancer and you begin to wonder if this strange looking mole could be melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer. And you ask yourself, "Should I get this checked out?" The answer is yes. Anytime you are worried that a mole looks suspicious it is wise to get your doctor or dermatologist to take a look at it. It is certainly worth the peace of mind of getting an appointment. If it is nothing then you will be relieved. But if it is something, then you have hopefully caught things at a stage when you can do something about it.
An atypical mole is also called a "dysplastic nevi." These types of moles are said to be more likely than other moles to develop into melanoma. Please do know that not all atypical moles will develop into melanoma. For example, I have had some suspicious looking moles which were totally benign. Yet the risk is there so it is best to have them checked out. The Skin Cancer Foundation does report that: "The higher the number of these moles someone has, the higher the risk; those who have 10 or more have 12 times the risk of developing melanoma compared to the general population." But what signs should one look for in detecting an atypical mole?
The American Melanoma Foundation provides an easy way to remember what to look for when we look for suspicious moles. It is called the ABCD rule of melanoma and here is what to remember:
"A" is for Asymmetry. Normal moles look the same on both sides. Asymmetrical moles do not match up on both sides.
"B" is for Irregular Borders. The colors may seem to bleed outside of the borders which may be uneven or blurred.
"C" is for Uneven Color. Instead of one shade of color, there may be multiple colors present such as brown, tan and black. If a mole becomes a lot darker you should also get it checked out.
"D" is for Diameter. If your mole is larger than 6 millimeters you may want to get your mole looked at by a doctor. Most of the literature states that anything larger than a pencil eraser should be checked out.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If you wish to see comparison images of normal moles as compared with atypical moles please visit this photo page created by The National Cancer Institute.
Other signs to look for as recommended by The Skin Cancer Foundation include:
- Moles or growths which itch
- Bleeding or Oozing
- A Bluish-Black color
The American Melanoma Foundation gives us these additional signs to look out for as well:
- Color which extends out of the border of the mole to the surrounding skin.
- Scaly appearance
One of the important things to remember is that it isn't always easy to detect an atypical mole. So this is why it is important to get an annual screening so that a dermatologist can check your moles. Atypical moles can hide in places you are not as able to see very well such as on your scalp or even under your fingernails. A good dermatologist is going to do a fully body scan to check your moles even going through your scalp or looking between your toes for any signs of a potentially harmful mole. One of the things suggested to me as I have now had several precancerous moles, is to take some photos of the moles on my body to look for any changes over time. Otherwise it can be difficult to keep track of all these moles especially when they are mostly hidden from your view, like ones on your back.
One of the best ways to prevent skin cancer is to understand what things to look for so that you can go to your doctor to report any changes in your skin. If you have a suspicious mole and you just aren't sure, make an appointment with your doctor to get things checked out. Better safe than sorry is still a wise adage.
For additional resources on this topic please visit any of the links listed below:
- Skin Cancer Connection: Melanoma Information Page
- Our Doctor Kevin Berman reports on "Moles, and Other Precancerous Skin Lesions"